Mayor Todd Gloria and San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit during a press conference in downtown on April 20, 2023.
Mayor Todd Gloria and San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit during a press conference in downtown on April 20, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Mayors don’t usually put forward big new laws or policies to the City Council if they don’t have the votes lined up. It would be logical to assume Mayor Todd Gloria and Councilman Stephen Whitburn have a good idea that the Council as a whole will support their proposal to ban homeless encampments on public land in the city.

But as we’ve noted, the law already prohibits public camping. The mayor himself ran for the office in 2019 critical of his predecessor’s enforcement of laws related to the illegal lodging and encroachment.

Now, he’s seeking a new law. And we have lots of questions. Why? People complain about crimes occurring that are already illegal. What does this do? How will it be enforced?

And then there are political questions. Does he have the votes? The Council moved the ordinance out of the Rules Committee without an endorsement. Will the critics come around? (Watch, in particular, Council President Sean Elo-Rivera and Councilman Kent Lee. What will they do?)

To grapple with some of this, we did a special interview with Gloria for the podcast. Given that the vote is Tuesday and the podcast is coming out next Friday, we’ve provided some of the relevant parts here, exclusively for Politics Report mavens.

This exchange has been edited for style and clarity.

Scott Lewis: What does the ordinance do to city law that city law is incapable of facilitating right now?

Mayor Todd Gloria: I think this is an opportunity to reassert what our expectations are of really everyone who uses our public spaces. Some of those expectations have been muddied in the last couple of years because of the pandemic. And I think it does warrant clarification. … I think the most important difference are those sensitive sites, the schools, parks, waterways, canyons, homeless shelters, places where we want to control the time, manner and place of encampments in those areas in order to boost safety and public health.

What about the (existing) law doesn’t allow you to do that now?

It is not specific to these sensitive sites that we’re concerned about. … I believe what this will do is give us that enhanced stability in those sensitive locations, as well as remind people what our expectations are for across the city with regard to encampment and public spaces.

We have several years now of experience of different levels of enforcement. When you were running for mayor in 2019, you released a chronic homelessness plan. And in it, you said, in response in part to the enforcement that Kevin Faulconer was doing as mayor at the time, that you would pursue “no more criminalization or criminalizing the existence of San Diego’s poorest and sickest residents.” And that was, again, in reaction, it seemed like, to the enforcement mechanisms that he was employing at the time. What about this is different from what he was doing then, or what you felt like needed to be done then?

I think the most important difference is the amount of services, specifically shelter beds that were providing as a city today that were not being provided back then. And the challenge, Scott, is that over the last two and a half years that I’ve served as mayor, we have invested a tremendous amount of taxpayer money to provide not just additional outreach, but shelter and housing opportunities. And unfortunately, what we’re finding with, from our outreach workers is many of their offers of assistance are declined.

When it comes to drug use, public defecating and violent fights that you list in these press conferences, what is it about our current enforcement and police and public services that is not able to deal with those, especially violent and already illegal things that are happening? What stops the city from stopping it now?

Well, we can, and we should, and I expect our officers to do precisely that. I expect our prosecutors to prosecute those cases, our judges to hear those cases, and folks to incarcerate people who are found guilty. That’s my expectation. Now, does that always happen? Not in every instance, but Scott, part of why we’re doing the unsafe camping ordinance is the recognition that encampments, unfortunately do attract crime. I’m not here saying it’s homeless people doing the crime. Often, they’re the subjects or the targets of crimes. Encampments are a rich breeding ground for drug traffickers, human traffickers the people who are coming into those areas. And often when it’s drugs and human, prostitution that it also begets other things like the violence we saw just last week on Commercial Street in Barrio Logan, East Village. The encampments often attract this kind of behavior, and that’s precisely why it’s not safe to leave people out there.

When this law first went through this proposed ordinance at the rules committee, it hit probably the biggest criticism, which was that it is not accompanied by significant shelter options. You’ve since then released a comprehensive shelter solutions plan. I went through it. One of the things that stuck out for me was this sentence that said, “On average there are 32 instances of bed unavailability every day.” Basically people, cops, in particular, who are taking, trying to get somebody into shelter, and they cannot do it. There were 1,200 instances last year alone when shelter was inaccessible. There are far more people out there unsheltered than there are shelter spots. And now you’re going to say you’re not allowed to not take those shelter spots, though. That feels like a pretty significant disconnect. … So how does that work out in your head?

Pretty simply, I mean, first off, the law does not require us to have a one for one option. You mentioned the 32 people who may raise their hand for which we can accommodate on a daily basis, but that’s in the context of over 10,000 homeless people in our county. Right? It’s a small fraction of folks who are willing to say yes. I think once we set the expectation, more people will say yes, which is why we propose not one, but two safe sleeping sites that combined together could have as many as 534 tent opportunities. And obviously sometimes tents have more than one person. So you can see pretty quickly how we will be able to almost immediately set that up. Right. We think that 20th and B can be up and running by July 1st

Downtown Homelessness Hits a New Record, Too.

The Downtown Partnership again counted more homeless people on the streets of downtown and nearby areas in May than ever before.

The count came the same week as the release of the region’s annual homeless census for the year, which likewise found an all-time high across the county.

And both come days before the City Council is scheduled to vote on broad prohibitions on camping within the city that supporters of the measure say could dramatically cut down the encampments that have come to define downtown San Diego in recent years.

“This is the highest tent and person count on record for our organization, making the actions being considered by our elected leaders in the coming weeks critically important,” wrote Betsy Brennan, president and CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, in a blunt email releasing the organization’s monthly count.

Brennan said the organization supported the camping ban, along with a handful of other new homeless initiatives.

The new monthly downtown number, again, depicts a harsh picture of how things are going. The 2,104 homeless people the organization counted last month aren’t just a 7 percent increase from a month earlier, which was itself an all-time high. It is also a 48 percent increase from the total in December of 2016, the high of the last ten years before the downtown homeless population began a prolonged increase once the pandemic started waning. The homeless population downtown and in the surrounding area has increased 160 percent since September of 2021.

It wasn’t long ago that numbers like the downtown’s monthly count, or the annual point-in-time count, were unwelcome news, because they focused attention on the crisis and the city’s inability to improve it. This week, though, the startling totals were instead wielded as evidence that the city needed to pass the camping ban.

“Unfortunately, what we’re finding from our outreach workers is many of their offers of assistance are declined,” said Mayor Todd Gloria, in an interview with Voice of San Diego. “And as we’ve seen our on street homeless population grow – we just received the most recent point in time count, the numbers are sobering and illustrative of the fact the problem is becoming larger – that additional increase in population coupled with the substantial increase in services that we’re providing, I think warrant this ordinance. When we’re providing over $200 million a year in taxpayer funds for homeless outreach, shelter and services – when we offer services, that answer cannot be no.”

Democratic Side of the Supervisor Race Takes Shape Ahead of Party

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe collected another union endorsement this week, giving her a stranglehold on labor support in her county supervisor race. That’s never been an asset during her political career.

She added this week an endorsement from the Southwest Carpenters Local 619, to go alongside support from Laborers Local 89, UDW/AFSCME Local 3930 and SEIU Local 221. Those last three have significant interest in county matters.

But there is one county union that could still have considerable sway in the race, and which is expected to oppose Montgomery Steppe’s candidacy: the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of San Diego.

The progressive-aligned unions coalescing behind Montgomery Steppe, though, is giving shape to the race. Her Democratic opponent in the primary – nonprofit executive and LGBTQ and veteran advocate Janessa Goldbeck – is looking elsewhere to build a winning coalition.

Goldbeck this week won the endorsement of the San Diego Democrats for Equality, one of the largest groups within the county’s Democratic Party. She’s also won endorsements from a handful of the region’s highest profile elected officials.

The next trophy up for grabs between the two is the party endorsement itself. Both club endorsements and elected support will feed into that decision, and both Montgomery Steppe and Goldbeck have solid wins on both ahead of the vote. But the vote itself is crucial, because the party isn’t subject to county campaign fundraising restrictions, as it tells registered Democrats to support its favored candidate. If either candidate can’t secure the endorsement themselves, simply blocking the party from endorsing their opponent would itself be a big deal.

Goodbye from Andy

This is my last Politics Report. In a few weeks, I’ll start at Axios. A few weeks after that, we’ll launch Axios San Diego, where I’ll do something sort of like what I’ve been doing here for nearly 11 years. It’s surreal to see that written down.

Thank you to all the Politics Report subscribers who have spent their Saturday mornings reading through our scoops, takes, analyses and musings. It has never been lost on me how lucky I was that there was a large group of you who cared to do that. I hope I occasionally told you something you did not know. I’ve enjoyed it all, even sparring with some of you on Saturday mornings when you didn’t like what we had to say.

In the future, please direct all Saturday morning inquiries to Scott Lewis. He loves the attention.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for all the good work Andy and congratulations.

    Something I thinks Voice has touched on before related to the mayors new law is the lack of clarity on how many spots are available at shelters at a given moment. If that isn’t corrected it takes a lot of the functionality out of this new ordinance. Why would an already over allocated officer bother pushing someone to shelter if they can’t be sure there’s space?

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